Dindo Manhit, President of the Stratbase ADR Institute
The military has confirmed that the United States is helping with surveillance in Marawi. Photographs of a P3 Orion circling the city have been shared widely online, where many fellow citizens have remarked on the apparent turnaround in government policy. As the fighting in Marawi continues, we can only share in the hope that additional assistance will help end the devastation.
This assistance is hardly the first time the United States has been active in Mindanao. For over a decade, America has had a special operations mission in Mindanao, as part of “Operation Enduring Freedom–Philippines.” The operation began under the auspices of the War on Terror, a global effort to help national governments reduce the ability of violent groups to wreak terror within or beyond their borders. At its peak, around 600 US soldiers were involved. In 2014, a representative of the US Embassy told the Associated Press: “Our partnership with the Philippine security forces has been successful in drastically reducing the capabilities of domestic and transnational terrorist groups in the Philippines.”
When America announced that it would close its mission in Mindanao by May 2015, many observers wondered if what had been low-level insecurity would stay contained in small portions of the Philippines’ less-governed spaces. As with all changes, some level of doubt may have been inevitable. Nevertheless, these doubts were only compounded by the 2015 Mamasapano tragedy, which put on full display the poor coordination abilities of our police and military commands. The abilities of government forces to assess, preempt, and respond to risks came under severe public scrutiny—and the administration at that time was found wanting. Perhaps to ease the transition, a small contingent of US forces remained in Mindanao even after the joint task force had been shut down.
Following what seemed a personal spat between President Duterte and then US President Barack Obama, the PH-US relationship has rested on less than solid ground. By September Mr. Duterte was announcing that he wanted all US special forces out of Mindanao, ostensibly for their own safety. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana walked that pronouncement back, clarifying that US assistance remained necessary for the military, which continued to make use of US surveillance capabilities to inform its own operations. Today, that same surveillance effort is at work in and around Marawi.
The political back-and-forth on US presence in the Philippines can be sometimes dominated by symbolism. In this discussion, we talk about what it means for us as a country to have close relations with a foreign and former colonial power. Our desire to assert our independence frames the way we approach both our present leaders (such as on their citizenship) and the way our leaders approach others. It was only last year, for example, that the President “shocked” a diplomatic crowd by showing photographs of the Bud Dajo massacre during the Philippine-American war.
Given the historical baggage, why does cooperation continue? It continues because of practical-minded defense planners, diplomats, aid workers, and others who work on issues of national interest and still see direct value in working with others to accomplish shared goals. It continues because our government and even our civil society have specific objectives that would benefit from the assistance of others. Whether in Marawi or in Tacloban, for these “doers” the question is less about the colonial hold and more about working to close a gap with partners that have shared priorities and, ideally, shared values. It should not take crises for us to value the help of others.